Just thre of Mollie Panter-Downes’ works are in print. All three are fiction. Virago have her novel “One Fine Day” and persphone have two volumes of short stories.
Yet she considered herself to be primarily a journalist. And this book says to me that she was a very fine journalist.
Between 1939 and 1945 Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war from England for the New Yorker, and it is those weekly or fortnightly letters, edited by William Shawn that make up this book.
She writes quite beautifully, balancing wit, anger and grief, and placing her reader in the very heart of London at war. The broad sweep of the war and the major events are reported, and so are the all important small details.
The changes of pace and mood feel perfectly judged.
It is one thing to know the history – the fall of france, the blitz, the very real threat of invasion, so many facts to know – but it is a quite different thing to understand what it really meant, what it felt like for the people who were there, who lived through those events.
This book really is extraordinarily vivid.
I can do no better than quote the words of C P Snow :
“To anyone who lived through the period [the letters] bring it all back, as though one caught a whiff of brick-dust and was transported to the smell after an air raid. To anyone seeking the feel of wartime London, there probably isn’t a truer guide.”
And now I must share some of the many, many quotes I marked as I read:
3rd September 1939
“Gas masks have become part of everyday civilian equipment, and everyone is carrying the square cardboard cartons that look as though they might contain a pound of grapes for a sick friend. Bowlegged admirals stump jauntily up Whitehall with their gas masks slung neatly in knapsacks over their shoulders.”
19th September 1939
“Reactions to our first alarm were on the whole prompt and praiseworthy. Miss Chubb, one of our sub-wardens, found that she had not yet been provided with the tin hat promised by a benevolent government for such an emergency. Nothing daunted, she donned an aluminium pudding basin, which fitted to a nicety, mounted her bicycle and shot round her section blowing blasts on a whistle with a violence which shook the pince-nez on her mild nose.”
22nd June 1940
“For once the cheery comeback of the average Londoner simply wasn’t there. The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence. The public seemed to react to the staggering news like people in a dream, who go through the most fantastic actions without a sound.”
24th July 1940
“The everyday things of like that were thrown out of gear by events are in order again; theatres and restaurants which were doing terrible business are packed once more. Although the city looks normal enough on the surface, there’s always the underlying knowledge that at any instant this state of affairs may be violently ended.”
14th September 1940
“The scene next morning was quite extraordinarily eerie. The great sweep of Regent Street, deserted by everyone except police and salvage workers, stared gauntly like a thoroughfare in a dead city. It would have been no surprise to see grass growing up out of the pavements, which were covered instead with a fine, frosty glitter of powdered glass.”
June 29th 1941
“Since last weekend, the English have been facing up to a tough job of readjustment. having in the past decided to view Russia as the great imponderable who would continue to sit shrewdly on the fence until the moment she could come off it and dictate terms to a war-exhausted world, they realised suddenly that the fence was deserted and its former occupant was right there on the firing line beside them.”
10th August 1941
“The classic English topic of conversation, the weather, has vanished for the duration and now would be good for an animated chat only in the event of a brisk biblical shower – of oranges, cheese, cornflakes and prunes instead of manna. Everyone talks about food. An astonishing amount of people’s time is occupied by discussing ways and means of making rations go further.”
28th December 1941
“Because of the well-known Axis predilection for staging coups on days normally devoted to Christian peace and quiet, most people here approached the Christmas holiday with the feeling that it might very likely be ticked off in red on the Hitlerian calendar. Having filled the children’s stockings, parents retired to bed, leaving their flashlights and warm clothing extra handy in case something noisier than a herald angel should drop in.”
18th October 1943
“A movie that is drawing crowds in the magnificent “In Which We Serve”, which is the life story of a destroyer, written, directed, musically scored and starred in by Noel Coward. The real star, however, is the Navy. Lots of Englishmen, who were made a trifle warn under the collar by “Mrs Miniver” are glad that America is at last going to have an authentic picture of how the British acted under bombings, came back from Dunkirk, and generally conducted themselves in time of acute stress and strain. None of the anxious wifes and mothers in this picture is a Greer Garson, but you should like it nevertheless.”
28th May 1943
“Some erudite Briton has just dug up the fact that 1946 will be the bimillenary of the invasion of Britain by Rome in the summer of 55 BC. Lots of less erudite Britons are merely hoping that this summer will neatly wipe out the score for their woad-soaked ancestors, even if it is three years too early.”
27th February 1944
“Once more London finds itself a blitz city. A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy raid to find out if they’re still there.”
27th August 1944
“Londoners, as might have been expected, neither danced in the streets nor chanted the “Marseillaise” when the first reports of the liberation of Paris reached here at lunchtime on Wednesday. Stolid as ever, they merely picked up a paper and hurried on the usual scramble for something to eat.”
“Wednesday’s news made Londoners feel as though they were waking from a long and horrible dream and returning to a sanity so overwhelmingly good that it had to be taken slowly.”
15th April 1945
“Because the British have been prepared for the last few weeks to receive the good news which obviously nothing could spoil, the bad news knocked them sideways. President Roosevelt’s death came as a stupefying shock, even to those Britons whose ideas of peace do not run much beyond the purely personal ones of getting their children back home again, a roof over their heads, a little car back on the road, and plenty of consumer goods in the shops. To the more internationally minded, the news seemed a crushing disaster. people stood in the streets staring blankly at the first incredible newspaper headlines which appeared to have suddenly remodeled the architecture of the world.”
12th May 1945 (V-E Day)
“As the evening wore on most of the public buildings were floodlighted. the night was as warm as midsummer, and London, its shabbiness now hidden and its domes and remaining Wren spires warmed by lights and bonfires, was suddenly magnificent.”
And finally I must make a plea. Will somebody please reissue this book?!